In about four weeks the latest Yakuza chapter - Yakuza: Like a Dragon - will be with us and like many fans we are looking forward to another excursion into the world of Japan's most famous gangsters. Because there are some noticeable changes, Sega invited us to take part in a virtual preview event, where we played through the fifth chapter of the latest part of the series. Newcomers won't have to worry about the already established series timeline, ranging from 0 to 6 with a few spin-offs, because Like a Dragon offers a completely new beginning, with its own main character as well as heavily rebuilt game mechanics.
Instead of primarily brawling our way through the top dogs of Tokyo's streets over the course of the story, a complete RPG system has been adapted into Like a Dragon. But, before we come to that, let's start with our new protagonist: Ichiban Kasuga, a young clan member of the Japanese mafia in 2001, asked by his patriarch to go to jail for a murder he did not commit, protecting the real culprits. Since Ichiban doesn't want anything more than to be a hero, he agrees to this most dubious deal, and after 18 years in prison, he is allowed to leave only to find out that his alleged heroic deed is of no interest to anyone. On the outside, instead of gratitude he is greeted by a bullet, finding himself alone in Yokohama. While this sounds very gloomy, it's just the typical setup plot for a Yakuza game the sort of which fans have grown accustomed to already.
Despite all the odds, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is much wackier than the previous iterations. Ichiban is a weirdo who seems to inspire the world around him with his expansive imagination. The action and the whole tone of the title is funnier and also a bit more vulgar than what we are used to from the series - even though the side missions of the Yakuza series have always featured rather strange characters and ideas. So, it's no wonder that the game designers at Ryu ga Gotoku Studio really got it going to equip their new project with plenty of RPG mechanics.
In the usual way, we wander through the varied and lifelike streets of Yokohama alone, but this time we have three partners in our quest group who are diligently involved in battles. While the opponents and our characters position themselves automatically on the battlefield in real time, we determine our actions once one of our characters' turns begin. In addition to the normal attacks, the game's many different skills are the icing on the cake. This time we not only have hit points to take care of, but also MP, which we spend on our special offensive and defensive skills. We can even trigger effective special actions, launching an area of effect attack or healing/buffing our team. Of course, we can also use objects such as energy drinks for healing or summon powerful "poundmates", i.e. our buddies, who unleash their own juicy attacks on the hostile crowd. Just keep an eye on the positions of your opponents so that your attacks do come to fruition and area attacks have the maximum effect. Quick-time-events and button mashing is necessary from time to time in order to take the damage to the max.
To become a "real" RPG, the developer added a few more systems on top of that. For example, our warriors can take on different jobs that bring their own, distinctive skills with them. Of course, these jobs are not standard fare, like a magician or thief, but more in the likes of pop idol, elite police officer or mafia thug. We even hang around in dungeons with our protagonists constantly pulling a role-playing gag to poke fun at what's going on, so the whole thing seems a bit like a parody, albeit like a perfectly playable one.
Apart from the tactical battles, the action is similar to that of other Yakuza games. We are practically bombarded with side missions and mini-games and in addition to classic Sega machines that we can try out in the arcades, this time around, there are some crazy things that happen. For example, you can spend your time checking an economic simulation, which includes shareholder's meetings in which we work to get a biscuit shop going. In addition, extensive kart racing awaits us in Yokohama, as well as options to visit an independent cinema in which our task is not to fall asleep while watching weird trash films.
All in all, a lot has stayed the same. While the fighting mechanics (a core element of the Yakuza series) has been completely turned inside out, people who don't know much about fighting games in the first place can now take a look at the extremely extensive and often crazy world of Yakuza as a RPG player. In a technical sense, the title is in good shape as well with beautiful animations to boot. For Sega, the risk of leaving the beaten path seems to have been worthwhile, too: With the Japanese release earlier this year, the title shot straight to number one in the sales charts and it even won a Japan Game Award for excellence during the Tokyo Game Show recently. After our first impression, these successes are fully deserved and we are eagerly awaiting the release on November 10.